Naftali Rothenberg

The etrog has disappeared in the golden box

The 4 species as a social parable: “The etrog who thinks he does not need the other species represents liberalism, enlightenment and pluralism. Without him, he thinks, there is no tolerant and democratic society. He has a hard time with the other and so he closes himself in a golden box.”

On Sukkot, we leave our house-fortress to a temporary apartment. There is no lock on the door of the sukkah and any person close and stranger who wishes to join the symbolic Ushpizin: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David – can do so. The exclusive, private spaces we have created for ourselves are blurred: passers-by and neighbors hear the family members’ conversations in the sukkah and witness behaviors usually protected by concrete and stone walls. To say in prayer: “And thanks to the fact that I came out of my house … it will be considered to me as if I had removed wandering …” – Did we really come out of fixation and closure to the point of being able to contain in our minds others besides us? We removed wandering? To what extent?

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The four species, lulav, willow (arava), myrtle (hadas), etrog, in the words of our sages, symbolize four types of human beings: educated and moral, they are like etrog because they also have taste and smell. The rest of the human species are divided according to those who have taste but odorless, those who have odor but tasteless, and those that are like willow – which have neither taste nor smell.

Surprisingly, each of the species has equal status for the purpose of keeping the mitzvah and not only that, but it is impossible to keep it without taking the four of them together. The etrog, the myrtle and the lulav will unite (they have common topics of conversation) together – without the willow – there is no mitzvah here at all! The etrog will close itself in self-importance in a golden box and it is all pleasure on its part and its smell – it is vanity and evil spirit. An etrog encloses itself in a box of gold worth less than a semi-dry, mostly leafy willow, which unites with the other three species and gives them their wholeness.

Who are you and I like in our own eyes?

To the willow? To the lulav? To myrtle? Or etrog.

More important question: Who do we liken others to?! To the lulav? To myrtle? To the willow?

Discussing and looking at these questions has implications for all circles of our lives, near and far. One of them concerns, without a doubt, the way we see the society in which we live, and the country in general.

We hear the louder and louder sound from living room to living room, from a discussion hall to a coffee shop, from a newspaper article to a radio interview, from the theater stage to the TV studio and the voices all drain into gloomy summaries of the past year and gloomy forecasts for next year. “What is happening to Israeli society and the state?” The mourners ask. “Where have all the etrogs gone? What do the lulavim and hadasim think of themselves in their one-sided approach? How is it that we have become a society of willows?”

What do the lulav and the myrtle represent? Each of these species represents a singular, monistic ideology (as opposed to pluralistic). They are two of the four species and represent the majority of opinions in human society.

The willow does not represent an ideology at all. It does not purport to even represent tradition but is an integral part of it. More than that: without it there is no tradition. Is the tradition.

The all-encompassing etrog, which believes it does not need the other species, represents liberalism, enlightenment and pluralism. Without it, he thinks, there is no tolerant and democratic society. He has a hard time with the others so he locks himself in a golden box. Where did all the etrogs go? To the liberal ghettos they established for themselves. Their own cultural circles, exclusive community institutions such as schools, synagogues, etc. Based on his taste and self-smell no etrog discerns that he has lost everything he could have represented and contributed in true oneness with the rest of the species. His liberalism is no longer really like that, his enlightenment is dimmed, his flair for pluralism – embarrassing.

The closed gold boxes weaken society but surprisingly – it can maintain a reasonable balance and even a democratic culture exclusive to the etrog. After all, it can rely on the partial contribution of the lulav and the myrtle. What sustains the democratic existence is not necessarily a liberal or pluralistic ideology but a plural existence – a reality of diversity and multiplicity. The fact that society is divided into dozens and hundreds of distinctly distinct groups is far more important to the existence of democracy than a liberal and pluralistic ideology. The latter can make its contribution only in connection and not in differentiation.

A strong society and a democratic culture need a real connection between the four species. The etrog, in spite of its clear virtues, should join all the other three in the same class, as if not superior to the willow. So, his contribution will be invaluable.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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